TF: What if that was me?

TF: What if that was me? March 21, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 354-356

“Rayford’s day — and, he felt, his future — were both set,” Chapter 16 begins.

While Nicolae Carpathia signs his peace treaty with Israel, Rayford Steele will be getting Antichrist One ready for a flight to Baghdad, and then, after a brief tour of the ancient ruins set to be rapidly transformed into the new Global Capital City, for a flight west to New York. That peace-treaty signing, we have been told, is the most important prophecy-check list event in this book. It officially inaugurates Nicolae’s tenure as Antichrist and starts the Big Clock of the seven-year Great Tribulation ticking. Not long after the ink is dry we can expect a steady stream of seals, vials and trumpets of wrath — the Mark of the Beast, famine, war, pestilence, earthquakes, hail, fire, blood, a deadly meteor, Wormwood, demon locusts, painful sores, the seas will turn to blood, the sun will scorch the earth and then be blotted out, etc., etc.

That all starts this afternoon. Yet when Rayford muses about his future here, he’s mainly thinking about the logistics of his new job as Nicolae’s personal pilot:

Rayford would spend the night in New York before heading back home to decide whether it was really feasible to do this job from Chicago. Maybe he and Chloe would move to New York. …

Yes, no need to concern oneself with the merciless wrath of a vengeful God being poured out on the earth. Not when there are more pressing matters to attend to, like finding an affordable apartment in a good neighborhood not too far from the airport. (On the plus side, at least he doesn’t need to worry about what the local schools will be like, what with Raymie and every other child on earth having disintegrated a month ago.)

His job was ferrying Nicolae Carpathia wherever he wanted to go, and for some reason, Rayford felt compelled to sublimate his wishes, his desires, his will, and his logic. God had laid this in his lap for some reason, and as long as he didn’t have to live a lie, at least for now he would do it.

The way that divine leading so closely mirrors Nicolae’s mind-control mojo is theologically troubling. Either way, one feels “compelled to sublimate” one’s “wishes … desires … will … and logic,” making it impossible to know whether this compulsion is coming from God or from the Antichrist. Happily, though, Rayford doesn’t have to worry about where these orders are coming from as, here in Tribulation Force, God’s master plan and the Antichrist’s master plan are perfectly aligned.

When Chloe first suggested to her father that God’s plan and Nicolae’s might converge in this way, she seemed to be thinking that it would be useful for their resistance team to have an inside man working so close to the Antichrist — that Rayford should take the opportunity to act as a secret agent, infiltrating the inner circle of evil. That seemed promising to me, but Rayford seems to have missed the “secret” part of being a secret agent. He’s accepted the inside job, but only so long as he “didn’t have to live a lie.” That doesn’t work. A secret agent won’t last long if he thinks it’s his duty to constantly remind his new employer that his true allegiance lies elsewhere.

What he had been learning from Bruce and his own study of prophecy indicated that the day would come when the Antichrist would no longer be a deceiver. He would show his colors and rule the world with an iron fist. He would smash his enemies and kill anyone disloyal to his regime. That would put every follower of Christ at risk of martyrdom.

And if Rayford had been paying more careful attention to Bruce and to his own study, he would realize that this coming day was today — that it starts with signing of the treaty in a couple of hours. Again, if you know that the man you’re working for is about to start killing “anyone disloyal to his regime,” then it might be a good time to rethink the utility of living a lie.

Rayford foresaw the day when he would have to leave Carpathia’s employ and become a fugitive, merely to survive and help other believers do the same.

This little epiphany has been a long time coming and it’s a huge relief to see the authors and our hero finally acknowledging the reality of the scenario facing Rayford and his friends. They know what’s coming. They know this in detail. They know what they need to do to prepare and they know they haven’t got much time.

And yet they don’t prepare. Instead they worry about things like whether they should move from Chicago to New York or about researching more articles that they’ll never actually write or try to publish. Famine, war, pestilence, earthquakes, hail, fire, blood and all the rest are on the doorstep and they know this, but they’re still carrying on as though they had another seven years to kill before the seven years of woes and wrath begin.

We’ve seen that new converts in these books magically acquire an instant and comprehensive knowledge of much of the Bible. Buck, who has never read anything in the Bible except the parts of Revelation and Daniel that Bruce decodes in their study sessions, suddenly has bits of Ephesians and the Gospel of John memorized. But apparently this miraculous Bible-knowledge has limits. None of the Trib Force members seems to recall the book of Genesis from which they might have learned an urgently useful lesson from the story of Joseph. Joseph, you may recall, learned from Pharaoh’s dreams that seven lean years were coming, and so he prepared for them.

As soon as Nicolae signs that treaty, the seven lean years facing the members of the Trib Force will begin, and they know that what’s in store for them will be far, far worse than what Joseph faced. Famine is just one of the myriad dooms awaiting them, and it’s not nearly as dreadful as some of the other horrors they know will be coming starting today. But unlike Joseph they do not prepare ahead for the coming famine or for any of the rest of what they know their God is about to unleash on the creation that their God despises.*

The only lesson that Rayford and Buck seem to have gleaned from the story of Joseph is that in hard times it’s best to suck up to Pharaoh and try to land a job as his right-hand assistant. (See earlier, “Joseph and the Appalling Tyrannical Despot.”)

Seeing Rayford here finally acknowledging what’s coming, and that he will soon need to become “a fugitive, merely to survive” is immensely frustrating because it shows that the authors don’t understand how their psychedelically horrifying premise might have provided the vehicle for a story that could have been, if not logical, at least exciting.

Look, Tim LaHaye’s “Bible prophecy” scheme is full-gonzo insane ludicrous, absurd, mind-boggling, incomprehensible, asinine and ridiculous. It’s based on an impossible and immoral reading of disparate scriptures cut-and-pasted into a not-quite coherent timeline of horror upon horror, a timeline that was invented in the 19th Century by fringe heretics and later embellished by profiteering Gantries preying on the gullible. But set all that aside for the moment and just appreciate that whether or not this timeline of horrors makes any sense, whether or not the sequence of this check list of impossibilities has any narrative logic to it at all, it still ought to provide the setting for a rollicking roller-coaster ride of a disaster movie.

So bracket all of the ethical, logical and theological atrocities of this plot. Look past all those nagging concerns about physics, human nature and continuity. Just go with the story we are given. There’s enough raw material here for a few dozen epic disaster movies by the likes of Roland Emmerich or Jerry Bruckheimer. Sure, those directors may be hacks (fabulously wealthy hacks), but they know how to tell a disaster-movie story. When they destroy the earth every summer at a theater near you, they know enough not to make it boring.

And here’s how they do that, the key to any engaging and entertaining disaster epic: Start by imagining that this is happening to you and then try to imagine what you would do. (Part of the fun, of course, is that you also get to imagine that you are braver, cooler-headed, quicker-thinking, smarter, luckier and more omnicapable than you could ever really hope to be in such a situation.)

The rest is just details. It doesn’t matter if the premise is an asteroid or hostile aliens, zombies or a Super Volcano, the key to telling the story is to ask “What if that was me?” and to convince your audience to ask that same question.

I think there’s a connection here between LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins’ failure of story-telling and the appalling ethical failures of their characters. Both of these can be traced back to the refusal or the inability to ask that question, “What if that was me?” Because they never ask that question, the authors can’t be relied on to give us an exciting story that invites us into it any more than their characters can be relied on to give a rip about plane-crash victims or about their suddenly childless neighbors. Never asking that question is hostile to readers in terms of both ethics and story-telling, both character and plot.

The standard clichés of Hollywood disaster movies can help us to see why Rayford’s obtuse failure to prepare for the coming Great Tribulation is so frustrating. Those movies usually begin with the conflict between the hero and the short-sighted doubter. The hero foresees the impending disaster, but his (or, very rarely, her — usually only if she’s the Professor’s Daughter) warning is dismissed by the foolish doubter who insists that nothing needs to be done to prepare for such an unlikely calamity. In a conventional disaster flick, the audience knows how to respond to this set-up: “You fool! Listen to him — he knows what’s coming! Get ready before it’s too late! Don’t you realize that Pierce Brosnan** knows more about volcanoes than anybody?”

But in this story, Buck and Rayford seem to be playing both of those roles. They are acting both as the Cassandras foretelling doom and as the pompous fools ignoring that warning. This leaves readers confused as to how to respond. We feel like we should be shouting: “You fools! Listen to yourselves — you know what’s coming! Get ready before it’s too late!”

So let’s take this opportunity to be Pierce Brosnan — or any other foresighted hero from any other disaster movie. What if that was you? You know what’s coming: Global tyranny, the Mark of the Beast, famine, pestilence, etc. (here’s a helpful chart of the Great Tribulation timeline, in case you nodded off during Bruce’s lectures and need a refresher). It can’t be stopped. It’s all coming, but you have a brief window of time in which to prepare and you have the advantage of knowing exactly what’s going to occur, when and in what order.

So let’s brainstorm here, people. What if that was us? What would we need to do? What would we need to collect and prepare? Who would we need to recruit? The feckless Trib Force hasn’t even started with the basics of canned food, bottled water, medical supplies and ammunition, but all that’s just for starters — what else and who else will we need?

One place to start, I’m thinking, would be with the evangelical relief and development agencies. Based on recent comments by Franklin Graham, it seems like most of the folks working for his Samaritan’s Purse would have disappeared along with Irene, Raymie and the Rev. Billings, leaving behind their network and supply chain of emergency food and disaster relief material. We should get right on that. The larger and more comprehensive faith-based relief groups — World Vision, Catholic Charities, Mennonite Central Committee, Lutheran Disaster Response, etc. — would likely still be fully staffed, but those folks will have recognized a Rapture and an Antichrist when they see one, even if they had never believed in such things. Their networks should be recruited to our cause or, at the very least, alerted to the specific schedule of calamities about to ensue and warned of the evils about to be wrought by Nicolae and LaHaye’s vengeful God.

What else? Put yourself in this movie. You know what Rayford knows — what Bruce knows and LaHaye himself knows about what’s coming. You’ve got just enough time for a standard disaster-movie montage sequence. In the next three and a half minutes, accompanied by the earnest strains of some up-tempo Christian rock band doing its best to sound like Survivor or Kenny Loggins, we’ll see quick-edit scenes of your racing to prepare for the Great Tribulation. Where do you go and what do you do?

What if this was you?

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* “For God so hates the world that he is sending back his only begotten Son, that whosoever beholdeth him shall perish from frickin’ laser beams out of his mouth. For God sent not his Son back to the world to save the world; but that the world through him might be destroyed.” — John 3:16-17, as amended to fit the universe of Left Behind.

** Dante’s Peak works for our purposes here as a standard, workmanlike disaster movie that conforms closely to the usual tropes, patterns and clichés. Ronald Donaldson’s film is a capable, useful example of the genre. Plus, if you look at the “memorable quotes” page on IMDB, you’ll find the hero, Brosnan, saying, “Get the hell out of there now, before it’s too late!” and the doubter, in turn, saying, “Harry, listen … for what it’s worth … you were right and I was wrong” — archetypal lines for both roles in a disaster movie. (The doubter, in this case, having admitted that the hero was right, is permitted to die nobly. Doubters who don’t admit this usually die ignobly, with the hero desperately trying — but just failing — to save them.)

While we’re on the subject of disaster movie clichés, let me direct you to Johann Hari’s recent HuffPo article, “The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim.” The chaos, panic and Hobbesian viciousness that disaster movies tend to assume will follow major disasters aren’t an accurate representation of how most real people really act when really facing real disasters. Most people, mostly, rise to the occasion in ways that are inspiring and awesome to behold:

The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. When the social scientist Enrico Quarantelli tried to write a thesis how people descend into chaos and panic after disasters, he concluded: “My God! I can’t find any instances of it.” On the contrary, he wrote, in disasters “The social order does not break down. … Co-operative rather than selfish behavior predominates.” The Blitz Spirit wasn’t unique to London: it is universal.


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